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Guantanamo probe stirs wider security concerns

Arrests of base workers lead to reexamination of Islamic ties in military bases and prisons.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2003



WASHINGTON

The investigation into security breaches at the US military's Guantanamo Bay prison has not yet turned up evidence of a coordinated Al Qaeda penetration of the heavily guarded Cuban camp.

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One of the three people recently arrested for alleged suspicious actions at Guantanamo - Muslim chaplain Capt. James Yee - hasn't even been officially accused of espionage. The Defense Department has instead charged him with two counts of misuse of classified material.

Still, there's little doubt that the detention of Captain Yee and two Arabic translators has shocked Washington into an intensive reexamination of Islamic influence inside civilian and military prisons, and the military itself. One early conclusion: The government cut corners in its rush to hire speakers of Arabic following Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think the results of that are as we are seeing here," said Charles Abell, a Defense Department personnel official, at a Senate hearing last week. "We found a couple who were not as trustworthy as we had hoped initially."

The Guantanamo Bay base seemed an ideal place to take Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. Prisoners there would be isolated both physically and culturally, US officials thought, and thus more prone to talk. In addition, the base has been heavily secured over the years, due in part to its unique status as an American toehold on an island ruled by US nemesis Fidel Castro. Escape seemed unlikely.

Escape is still unlikely, but in general the base no longer seems iron-plate locked. The weak point was internal: Those who work with prisoners had been allowed to come and go through prison gates into the larger base without extensive scrutiny. US personnel had to have a security clearance to be at Guantanamo at all, went the thinking. Why bother to check whether such presumably loyal military and contract workers were, in essence, passing prisoner notes?

Yet some were. In a quick burst this fall the military announced the arrests of Yee, who counseled Guantanamo prisoners, and two camp translators: Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, and contract employee Ahmed Fathy Mehalba.

The proximity of the arrest announcements led some observers to wonder if investigators had stumbled upon an Al Qaeda attempt to organize a cell at the camp. Details of the cases so far seem to indicate something else: three people who were allegedly compromising base security independently, and with varying degrees of seriousness.

Take the case of Yee, who was arrested at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Fla., on Sept. 10. Pentagon officials have said that he was carrying personal information about the prisoners he counseled during a 10-month stay at Guantanamo, as well as a map of the base. They've hinted that they're curious as to whether he's passed this information to a foreign power.

But on Oct. 10, Yee was charged only with disobeying orders by taking classified material to his home, and wrongfully transporting classified material without proper security containers or covers. Officials say they reserve the right to bring further charges later, following a more thorough investigation.

The charges are "nothing compared to what [initial reports] made you think it was," says a native Arab speaker who works in military intelligence.

Furthermore, it wouldn't be a surprise if Yee had developed mixed feelings about the treatment of prisoners, say some. Chaplains aren't interrogators, or guards.

"There's sympathy, then there's treasonous affiliation, but if he didn't develop some kind of sympathy [for prisoners] he shouldn't be a chaplain," says Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, who trains Muslim chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

But whatever happens to Yee, the military's Muslim chaplain program now faces a wide-ranging review.

The two Islamic organizations that have made referrals and religious certifications for the military's chaplain program - the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs - have been accused of ties to radical groups. The co-founder of the latter, for instance, Abdurahman Alamoudi, was arrested and charged with an illegal relationship with Libya earlier this month.

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